In what sense is the gospel “good news” for those who are suffering? This question is at the heart of the debate that is going on about the gospel amongst the evangelical and emerging church.
Rob Bell said in a recent interview in a tearfund magazine that “Making sure people have water and proper medication IS the gospel”. Of course he is reacting against the much maligned “personal gospel”, but I do sometimes wonder whether the emerging church is headed directly towards a purely “social gospel”.
So here are some thoughts on how the gospel addresses suffering. This hasn’t been developed too much, so feel free to critique it in the comments.
The gospel is good news in the present and the future. It alleviates suffering in the present, and eradicates it in the future.
1. Good News in the Present
The gospel is good news in the present because it transforms lives. This addresses suffering in three ways:
First, it transforms the lives of those who are already believers, causing us to love others and lay down our lives to serve them. This results in us finding practical ways that we can help and love those in need. It finds expression as Christians sacrificially give of their time and money to be a blessing to others.
Second, it transforms the lives of those who are suffering, as they respond to the gospel and become followers of Jesus. Even in the midst of their suffering they can know “joy unspeakable” (1 Pet 1:8). They are also empowered by the Spirit, and supported by the community of God’s people to live in a new way. The gospel sets people free from self-destructive addictions, obsessions, phobias, guilt, and insecurities, opening the door for them to enjoy life to the full, even if their external circumstances may not have changed.
Third, it transforms the lives of those who cause suffering. The gospel is just as much for the violent and unjust as it is for the victim and the outcast. Society responds to criminals by locking them up, but the gospel offers them victory over the temptations and sinful patterns of behaviour they once found themselves in bondage to.
2. Good News in the Future
The so-called personal gospel, that offers us hope of eternity in the new heavens and the new earth even after we die, cannot and must not be relegated to being merely a side issue. There is a very strong eschatological theme that runs through the whole Bible. Our salvation is now but not yet. We long for the heavenly city that is to come (Heb 13:4). Our justification by faith in Jesus, though true in the present, will be the unshakable foundation of our deliverance from the “wrath that is to come” (1 Thess 1:10).
The gospel does include a proclamation of both a coming King and a coming judgement. Therefore it does have personal implications, which will determine whether our future will mean glorification or condemnation. This is why Jesus and the apostles always urged people to “repent and believe” as a response to the gospel.
Word and Deed
If as evangelicals we are to embrace the “whole gospel”, then we must both proclaim and enact the good news. To show love in action as well as to speak the truth in love. As I said in my previous post, let’s not short-change people with a partial gospel.